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Eternal Beauty
essay [ ]
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

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by [lavacaloca ]

2003-12-13  |     | 

Since ancient times man has been obsessed with remaining young and beautiful. The author, Thomas Mann, examines the conflict of youth and aging in his short story
“Death in Venice.” The main character, Gustav Aschenbach, is a man defying the aging process. He is a renowned German scholar and writer, that reaches a crisis in his previously strict and controlled life. Aschenbach is bored, and decides to travel to Venice to escape from the pressures of his daily routine. Through a series of misadventures, this very self-controlled man falls in love with a beautiful boy, Tadzio. When Aschenbach first saw him he compared him to a Greek God, “…it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period…like that of the Boy Extracting a thorn”(Mann 216,217). He becomes more and more obsessed, like a lover gone crazy. Venice is under siege of plague, and given the chance to escape he chooses to take the ultimate risk of death rather than give up his passionate obsession.
Aschenbach is overtaken with Tadzio’s youth and beauty and longs to be young again. He is even pleased that Tadzio may be sick and die before growing old, “ ‘He’s very delicate, he’s sickly… He’ll probably not live to grow old.’ And he made no attempt
to explain to himself a certain feeling of satisfaction or relief that accompanied this thought” (Mann 225). Aschenbach looks in the mirror and sees an old
graying man, and wishes to renew himself at the barbershop. He hopes that by regaining some semblance of his youth Tadzio will notice him. The barber colors his hair black, puts makeup on him, and colors his lips. When Aschenbach observes himself in the mirror he thinks that he sees “an aura of youth”, overcame him, “with beating heart he saw himself as a young man in his earliest bloom” (Mann 259).
Aschenbach has become the man he ridiculed on the boat towards Venice. But as soon as Aschenbach took a slightly closer look at him “he realized with a kind of horror that the man’s youth was false. He was old there was no mistaking it” (Mann 208). The man’s youth was not real, he was a ridiculous old man made up to look young. Before exiting the boat the “dreadful old man” who pretended to be young, ridiculed himself in front of Aschenbach without any sign of shame. Both these men are similar, they both long for beauty, and when they believe they have it, they hold on tight. Beauty for them is a sense of comfort and power. They believe that beauty can give you superhuman powers. Aschenbach disapproves of the old drunken man, yet he himself longs to be accepted by those very same young boys who have made the old man one of them. Aschenbach at the beginning of the story “dearly longed to grow old, for it had always been his view that an artist’s gift can only be called truly great…if it has been fortunate enough to bear characteristic fruit at all the stages of human life” (Mann 201). He believes at the beginning of the story that the older you are the more wiser you get; yet he entirely contradicts himself by changing his physical image. If age defines your wisdom and knowledge, according to Aschenbach, then why bother hiding your wisdom under a pretty face, or an attempt at one? Aschenbach is a world of contradictions; it just goes to show that love or better-said platonic love can flip your ideals upside down.
People all over the world have found many ways to hold onto their youth. In the past few years, thanks to new surgical wizardry, media hype and the laws of gravity exerting their inevitable effect on baby boomers, cosmetic surgery has soared in popularity. In fact, people are delaying major decisions so much that the concept of age in America has changed. They feel that the longer you post phone getting married and having children, the younger you will remain. Growing old gracefully is a thing of the past. An obsession with eternal youth? Perhaps. But with life expectancy increasing, why not do what we can to stay young for as long as possible?
Having plastic surgery, staying fit and waiting longer for big life events like marriage, parenthood and retirement are ways people use to “stay in the game”. The world is a very competitive playground. Many people retire later in life, and they are obliged to keep looking young and fit. Thomas Mann when writing Death in Venice took pedophilia to a whole new level, instead of an elderly man falling in love with a young girl he falls in love with a young boy. Mann has also expressed that we all long for beauty and health, even those who have proclaimed themselves proud of being old. Youth symbolizes wisdom and knowledge. Who are we kidding? Nobody ages gracefully, unless they have help from the surgery fairy. Aschenbach is a very popular author who strives for acceptance in his personal and social life. He knows that he is famous and he gloats about himself. He feels free to criticize others appearance, yet he never really looks in the “mirror” until the end, when it is too late. He then begins to torment himself because he realizes that he has been criticizing himself all along. He has criticized others because he was never able to accept his own appearance. Aschenbach cannot accept the fact that he will never have eternal youth, none of us will. After all, as World War I era British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith put it: “Youth would be an ideal state if it came later in life.”

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